Alex Avila is not having a good season. Some would argue that he hasn't had a good season since his All-Star 2011 season when he hit .295/.389/.506 with 19 home runs and a 140 wRC+. His wRC+ fell to around league average -- 104, 92 and 97, respectively -- in the next three seasons.
This season, Avila has fallen so far below league average (.176/.315/.255, 67 wRC+) that rookie James McCann has taken over most of the catching duties.
One stat that jumps out with Avila is his line drive rate. It has never fallen below 20 percent since his first full season in 2010. This includes 2015, where it is at 29.7 percent, a career-high. This is a pretty strange number for a player that is batting only .176 in a not-so-small sample of 185 plate appearances. Usually, players with high line drive rates will have high batting averages because line drives fall in for base hits more often than any other batted ball. Looking deeper into this strangeness, among players with at least 150 plate appearances in a season, Avila has the highest line drive rate while having a batting average below .200 (batted ball data didn't start getting recorded until 2002).
The league average batting average on line drives this year is .685. Avila has 14 hits in 27 line drive at-bats for a batting average of .552. This is a very low average for line drive at-bats, even for Avila. In fact, Avila's batting average in these situations have never fallen below .690. There's some bad luck involved here. If we were to add five hits to normalize this stat, his overall batting average would be .209, which is a lot closer to his batting averages over the last few seasons.
Avila's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .273, which is lower than his .322 BABIP in 2014 despite his line drive rate being up by almost five percent this year. BABIP is a good tool that relies on a few factors: a player's talent level, the opposing defense and some luck. There are several formulas to determine a player's expected BABIP based on their batted balls, some more complicated than others. Beyond the Boxscore uses xBABIP, which uses batted ball rates to predict expected BABIP. This particular formula gives Avila an xBABIP of .358 in 2015, an insane difference of 85 points!
Adding to the madness is a 16.8 percent walk rate, the highest of his career. It is also higher than anyone else on the current Tigers roster, including Miguel Cabrera, who is at 14.9 percent for the year. Using raw walk totals, Avila has 31 walks, which is six more than Jose Iglesias... in 269 fewer plate appearances.
How is Avila drawing all of these walks when his batting average is below the Mendoza line? If I am an opposing pitcher, I'm going after Avila, not nibbling. Part of the reason is that Avila has a very good eye. He has only swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 18.2 percent of the time. Among players with at least 150 plate appearances, Avila ranks fourth in all of baseball in terms of the lowest percentage of swings out of the zone. However, Avila is striking out nearly a third of the time (33.5 percent). This is because he's only making contact 75.7 percent of the time -- ninth-lowest in all of baseball with a minimum of 150 plate appearances.
Now, there are a few players on that above list that are like Avila. Those that also have a walk rate at least 12 percent and a strikeout rate of 30 percent include Miguel Sano, Chris Carter, and Kris Bryant. However, all three of these players have one thing in common that doesn't apply to Avila: they all hit for power, and a lot of it.
Big swings, high risks, high rewards, high strikeouts. But it's not happening for Alex Avila. Avila use to hit for power; not a ton, but some. Over the last three years, he has been fairly consistent with isolated power (ISO) measurements of .142, .148, and .141, respectively. And if he were to have continued that this year, at least he would fit nicer in the above table.
There's only one other player that has Avila's high line drive rate with little power and a similar BABIP: Skip Schumaker. This is a rather unflattering comparison for Avila, as the Reds' veteran infielder has a 25.9 percent line drive rate, .079 ISO and .285 BABIP. But he doesn't have the gaudy walk totals that Avila does.
One big explanation for Avila's unique numbers is that he only has 190 plate appearances, a relatively small sample size. He just has not had enough playing time for things to level out. If these stats are not injury-related, Avila is due for a big positive regression next season. Avila is going to be a free agent at the end of the year and will be entering his age 29 season, which is typically right in the middle of a hitter's prime. Some team might be getting a bargain next season because there is no reason why Avila cannot get back to his usual production.